Dana Goldstein

Wednesday, November 15

Politically, it would be disastrous for progressives to adopt the abortion stance Julian Sanchez recently advocated on Campus Progress. Most people respond somewhat emotionally when it comes to this fraught topic, so to argue for reproductive rights from the black and white philosophical terrain of Julian’s libertarianism would be to cede important political ground in the debate. Julian argues for a pro-choice position based on affirming the non-personhood of fetuses and rejecting the supposed immorality of abortion. Abortion can be a deeply moral choice. It is an option that allows a woman to fulfill her own ambitions and ensure greater stability for herself and her family. But progressives must speak with humanity and nuance on this most sensitive of topics. Julian is right that we must not adopt “middle ground” policies when it comes to choice, but he is wrong that we cannot, or should not, convince Americans to support abortion rights by occupying a rhetorical “middle ground” in speaking about reproductive freedom.

For starters, you don’t have to believe abortion is immoral to admit that having one is difficult for many women. Abortion should never be treated as just another form of birth control; there is no good reason why one-third of American women should have abortions in their lifetime when we can do so much better at providing access to contraceptives. Low-income women are four times more likely to have an abortion, which demonstrates that quality education and health care are the best preventive measures. In terms of effective public health policy, progressives must embrace this approach and talk about it, even as we fully support access to abortion.

To speak about abortion is to speak about sex and parenthood, and we can’t obscure or avoid such discussions. Part of being female is grappling constantly with your body’s magnificent ability to create human life: Research shows that the average American woman will spend just five years of her life pregnant, trying to conceive, and postpartum, but 30 years actively avoiding pregnancy through the use of abstinence, contraceptives, or abortion. The choice to abort in particular cannot be separated from women’s identities as mothers or potential mothers: 60 percent of women who choose abortion are already parents, and half say they plan to have more children in the future. What this shows is that for most women, abortion is not a necessarily a dismissal of the personhood of unborn fetuses, but rather a way to become better mothers to existing and/or future children.

None of this negates the autonomy of women. I agree with Julian that the “life” of a fetus is, philosophically, of zero importance when compared to the life of the woman carrying it. That person must have full control over her body. But nevertheless, as a woman, I’m aware–sometimes painfully so–of the full potential for life within a fertilized egg. Twice in my life, I’ve taken emergency contraception (Plan B) after a condom broke. I certainly don’t regret either of those decisions, nor do I feel sadness or shame. I am proud that I took control of my destiny in each case. But what I also felt both times I took the morning after pill was a sense of awe. To sit in a doctor’s waiting room with your significant other, waiting to receive two tiny pills that can negate your sex act of the night before, is to wonder at both the raw power of biology and man-made medicine’s ability to conquer it. As lucky and relieved as I felt to have access to the best birth control available, I’ve never been able to ignore the fact that contraception and abortion are, at their core, refutations of my own body’s urge to reproduce.

Indeed, it is an intuitive respect for that potential to create life–not a cool-headed accounting of the neural structures within the brain of a developing fetus–that unites most Americans in shared discomfort with abortion. You don’t have to think abortion is, in the words of Hillary Rodham Clinton, “a tragedy” to recognize that abortion is complicated. This doesn’t mean we must endorse any legal restrictions at all on abortion, but if we progressives simplify our reproductive freedom rhetoric to a drone about the non-personhood of fetuses, we will lose the hearts and minds of Americans, and women will suffer. Rather, we must frame abortion rights within a larger conversation about providing Americans with good information about sexuality and health, access to contraceptives and other preventive medications, and affordable health care that allows men and women to have children if they choose to and raise them with dignity. And we must communicate that we are empathetic, not merely legalistic, in our approach to this issue.

Recently, a male friend teased me for using the term “anti-choice” to refer to those who oppose the legality of abortion. I responded that I resent the term “pro-life,” as anti-choicers seem not to respect at all the lives of women who dream of fulfilling their goals, achieving economic stability, or establishing a stable and loving relationship before becoming mothers. Reproductive rights allow women and men to take advantage of modern medicine in order to live satisfying lives. Exercising those choices, however, isn’t always easy or uncomplicated, and it’s counterproductive to pretend it is.